Improvisation, local are bywords for folk festival’s new artistic director

Katie Noonan thanks ABBA and a Benjamin Britten opera for her musical DNA.

As the National Folk Festival’s new Artistic Director, she will make Canberra her home for about a week a month, and is relishing the challenge of programming the next three festivals in an age of COVID uncertainty.

Listen to Richard’s interview with Katie Noonan

‘I think my career as a performer started in utero really, because my mum was performing Albert Herring or Peter Grimes, one of those tricky Benjamin Britten operas, at the Sydney Opera House in March, April 1977, and I was in utero,’ she told me shortly after her appointment was announced in mid-February.

‘Around about the same time my mum took my then six year old brother to see ABBA at the Sydney Cricket Ground. And I think therein my musical DNA was born – a great love of classical music, a great love of pop music.’

Katie Noonan has passion for storytelling, born of her father’s career as a journalist – a profession she once considered for herself. ‘I’ve always been drawn to interesting people and their stories and telling my story, I guess, as a musician,’ she says.

She began on the piano at age three and studying at Conservatorium level when she was 10. A year in Ireland left her with a love of Celtic music.

Aware that the chance of making a living in music was very slim, she studied hard and was accepted into law. But she was also offered places in music courses, and thought, ‘maybe music’s meant to be my thing’.

Katie Noonan sees herself as a folk artist, because she’s a storyteller. While she doesn’t plan to perform at the festival (she did that in 2012) , she will be an enthusiastic member of the festival choir.

As artistic director of the statewide Queensland Music Festival, she programmed more than 100 events in 40 locations. But she is looking forward to her role at the NFF.

‘This festival is completely different. It’s really grown from the community from the people of Australia from the festival. It’s got so much community love embedded in it. And that’s really what I’m all about. I’m a dedicated folky,’ she says.

She sees COVID as both catastrophic and a gift. For her, it meant cancelling three international tours and most of a national tour, including a sold-out gig in Canberra.

But it also ‘enabled us all to get off the treadmill of life’, and to get Australians over their cultural cringe.

‘We can only see our home grown acts, and then we go, “Holy Moly, aren’t they amazing?” So my first priority as an artistic director and as a collaborator is working with my fellow Australian artists because I think we make world class art and music,’ she says

‘So I’d be very happy to program an entirely Australian festival. And I’d be very happy to program a festival that, you know, minimises the risk of cross border travel, there’s great talent here in Canberra. There’s great talent around here.

‘… If we can, we will program international artists, but it’s just far too early to be making those calls.

‘I’m an improvising musician, so it is really one big improvisation, this thing, but I do take the rules of what we’ve been told to do very seriously … I do think it’s a serious illness that we do have to really be legitimately scared of. And I am.’

Katie says she’ll be focussing on a homegrown festival, and is keen that it reflects modern Australia.

‘As much as I love the Anglo Celtic folk music, and there will always be a home for that, of course, it’s not the complete definition of folk anymore. So we are a very multicultural, multifaceted country.

‘Whenever I program anything, obviously, I’m always like, “well, are you making a story or a sound that comes from a place of integrity and honesty?” That’s the first most important question.

‘But then I’ll ask myself other questions: Are you local? Are you Australian? Are you from Canberra? Are you a woman? And are you First Nations?’

Photo: Katie Noonan